John Huggan: Will Scots be priced out by Arnold Palmer?

New course designed by legend likely to be beyond pocket of ordinary golfer

New course designed by legend likely to be beyond pocket of ordinary golfer

FEW, if any, figures in American golf command more respect than Arnold Palmer. The 85-year-old icon, whose last PGA Tour win was recorded in 1973 – nine years after his seventh and last major victory at the Masters – is rightly regarded with huge affection both at home and abroad. Widely credited with resurrecting a largely moribund Open Championship when he arrived amidst great fanfare at St Andrews in 1960, Palmer has a historical significance far beyond the excitement and enthusiasm provoked by his flamboyant and sometimes disastrous go-for-it and hang-the-potential-consequences style of play.

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OK, so some of the fulsome tributes paid to the great man over the last few days have veered dangerously close to the sugary schmaltz our American cousins hold so dear, but there is no doubting their sincerity. While the current level of prize money on the PGA Tour owes more than a little to the unprecedented level of celebrity enjoyed by Tiger Woods – the first golfer to be the most famous sportsman on the planet – Palmer similarly raised the financial bar when the obvious appeal of his swashbuckling flair coincided with the introduction of television into US homes back in the late 1950s. The old line that “men wanted to be him and women wanted to be with him” was never more apt than in Arnie’s case.

Now it transpires that Palmer’s name is to be “on” a new course at Castle Stuart near Inverness, in what will be the two-time Open champion’s first design in Scotland. Well, sort of. Like his long-time rival Jack Nicklaus – whose level of involvement in course architecture bearing his “signature” depends on the amount of cash initially put up by the developer – Palmer’s direct input in this latest Highland venture will likely be minimal.

It can also be argued that the last thing Scotland needs right now is yet another high-end American-style course whose expensive green-fees effectively eliminate the vast majority of golfing Caledonians. It would have been nice to see Palmer live up to his “man of the people” image and attach his name to a family-friendly and affordable pay-as-you-play facility. But hey, even legends have to make money I guess.

THE most notable absentee from the Arnold Palmer Invitational that will conclude later today was, of course, the aforementioned Woods. It is claimed that the 14-time major champion is “working hard” on his game in the hope he will be ready for a tilt at what would be a fifth Masters victory early next month. While that may be so – although legitimate doubts linger when it comes to Tiger’s level of commitment these days – golf should prepare itself for the real possibility that the man who has surely played the game better than anyone ever has is finished.

If Woods really has chipping yips, along with the obvious problems he has long faced when it comes to hitting fairways, then he is done at the top level. Unless he starts chipping one-handed, or left-handed, or cross-handed – all unlikely in such a proud individual – Tiger’s career is over. Chipping yips are all but impossible to conquer. There is no “long chipper” out there offering a crutch as in putting.

Thus, the chances of Woods appearing at Augusta National would appear to be receding. If the demons in his mind linger, it is impossible to imagine him risking huge embarrassment on the tightly cut fairways found in the year’s first major. The pressure on his first chip over a bunker from a bare lie would be like nothing even he has faced before. Such a scenario surely represents compulsive viewing for us all. Which is not the same as saying witnessing what would be little more than ritual humiliation is even remotely desirable. Tiger may not be the most likeable individual in the game, but the potentially imminent demise of such a great champion is not something from which any real golf fan will derive any pleasure. At least for the enjoyment and excitement he has given us all with his peerless play, Woods deserves a better fate.

WATCHING the golf from Bay Hill – a course softened by a wet winter in northern Florida – it has rarely been more obvious that there is but one recipe for success at the top level of professional golf in the 21st century. Not surprisingly, it is one followed by the current world No.1, Rory McIlroy.

“Every long-term dominant player has used pretty much the same formula and Rory is no different,” says leading swing coach Hank Haney. “He is in the top-ten for driving distance and ‘greens in regulation’. He is in the top 40 for putting, which is good enough when the first two stats are high. His big improvement last year was in three-putt avoidance. Drive it long and somewhere you can find it – not necessarily on the fairway – hit lots of greens and don’t three-putt. When you do all that, you are playing a par-68 course. There’s no secret to it. The only other way to win is a great putting week at the same time you have a great ball-striking week. But to finish first on a consistent basis, you have to do it Rory’s way. No one can realistically sustain Luke Donald’s formula for success – hole everything for a year – which is why he hasn’t.”

In other words, while long hitting should always be an advantage, the edge enjoyed by the so-called “bombers” is now so disproportionate it threatens to all but eliminate everyone not blessed with the ability to bash golf balls at least 300 yards. Two decades ago Nick Faldo was the best player, employing a style based on accuracy more than power. Today, that strategy would be lucky to make the top 25. Golf at the top level is in real danger of becoming a one-dimensional slugfest. Depressing but true.

A TALE emerged over the last few days hinting that a “merger” between the European Tour and the PGA of Australasia might be in the offing. That level of teamwork may be a little fanciful, but there is no doubt that a greater level of involvement would be to the mutual advantage of both organisations.

Sadly, given the number of truly brilliant courses on offer Down Under, the Australian “tour” has seen a drastic deterioration over the years. Yes, victory in the Australian Open remains a feat any leading player would be proud to have on his resume – McIlroy, Jordan Spieth, Adam Scott and Geoff Ogilvy are all recent champions – but the Australian Masters and PGA no longer enjoy much in the way of prestige.

Still, four big events on four great Australian courses would be a huge fillip to a European Tour that currently spends way too much time in South Africa. The last two months may have provided the tour’s rank-and-file with opportunities to play for so-so purses, but a series of Springbok events that have largely merged into one mediocre mass has provoked nothing more than an equal number of yawns. It might not be what guys populating the lower reaches of the money-list want to hear, but what the European Tour really needs right now is quality rather than quantity.